A school in Vail, Arizona, becomes this autumn one of the first e-book high schools, ditching real, live paper textbooks for the flat screen sheen of student-issue laptops, e-texts, online articles and an extensive WiFi network. I can already hear the apocalypse-prophesizing of book lovers everywhere. But come now. This isn’t the same disaster of literacy that includes declining newspaper use in nations like Israel and Canada Post’s threat (hence reneged) to increase rates beyond all feasibility for the mailing of books between libraries and from libraries to their users.
I love books. Hell, I spend more time fantasizing about the next Harry Potter book coming in — what? — three years than I do about most handsome men I am acquainted with. Nevertheless, this much I know is true: high school textbooks suck and the more quickly they disappear from our academic landscape, the better. They are so horrible, they don’t even count as books.
Books are delicious things, up there with chocolate and German butter cheese and mashed potatoes and strong espresso. They feed your senses — their cracking spines, their sawdusty smell. I’m talking good non-fiction too. Books are like a warm bed on a mid-January morning when school is, without warning, cancelled. They are for burrowing into, disappearing inside, for emerging from only to revel in their remembrance. Books don’t breathe, but they are alive.
Textbooks are dirty old dead things. Even when they’re new, they’re old, like handkerchiefs. Textbooks are grimy, grey blocks of pulp and ink with fuzzy-edged pages born of bored-to-drooling fingering. They’ve been drawn on: the front (“school sux”); the back (“I heart Brad,” crossed out); the spine (“AC/DC”); and there are moustaches on the photos. In all likelihood, they’ve been spit on.
At least you can wipe the spit off a laptop. And while there’s no changing the content, there’s escape — well, at least at Vail High School — from the grottiness of tossed-about-for-the-last-15-years high school textbooks.
Sure, I’d take a laptop over any high school textbook I ever had. But what about those people that prefer a digital read? Now those are some queer ducks.
I chatted with a woman recently at my doctor’s office who was showing me the electronic device upon which she reads. I nodded politely, but I was silent. Doesn’t she miss holding the book she’s reading in her hands? Doesn’t Zadie Smith just dissolve into a grocery list when it comes at you, page after screen-dead page, on a BlackBerry?
Doesn’t she miss pouring over a bookshelf in search of her next literary conquest? Doesn’t she miss living with the books after she’s read them? Doesn’t she miss scuffing around in front of the bookshelf and caressing her books’ papery spines while she’s talking on the phone? It’s not fair to disparage the act of digesting the e-book. Nor of learning from one. (After all, the Vail High School students will still have access to the same info, they’ll just get to skip the task of hauling those godawful textbooks around.) Reading is reading. But I can’t buy into the means. It’s somehow surreptitiously anti-book, just like those home designers on HGTV who suggest all books that are not of the big, expensive coffee table variety are an eyesore to be banished at the next scheduled home purge.
When you love reading, there’s more to it than the words; when you love a person, there’s more to it than looking at his smiling mug on your picture phone. The missing element is touch. And I’d rather lick a high school textbook than do without it.